Summer’s out for school

The current Portobello High School
The current Portobello High School
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the sun is beating down on Portobello Park, a slight wind whipping up piles of autumn leaves as three kids chase each other across the expansive playing field.

In a far corner, a young couple camped out on the grass make the most of the good weather, enjoying a lunchtime bite to eat while deep in conversation.

Youngsters Millie, Lorcan and Jayden enjoy a day out in Portobello Park

Youngsters Millie, Lorcan and Jayden enjoy a day out in Portobello Park

Dog owners casually walk the perimeter of the field, their four-legged friends plodding ahead of them, while a female runner tears past before disappearing off into the wooded walkway.

“We moved here three years ago because of this,” says child minder Louise Duncan, 39, who is keeping a close eye on the three children under her care in the middle of the field, now throwing sticks for an enthusiastic young pup to chase.

“The appeal of getting our house was that it was quiet as it had this space on its doorstep.”

For most house buyers, Portobello Park has historically been seen as a pull when it comes to moving to the neighbourhood. But never before has the open space been in greater demand, with controversial plans now in place for it to become home to a state-of-the-art £41.5 million replacement Portobello High School.

An artist's impression of the new high school

An artist's impression of the new high school

The community is divided over the future of the park, common good land that backs on to Portobello Golf Course, a favourite with dog walkers, footballers and young children in the community.

While nobody has questioned the need to replace the school’s current building in Duddingston Road, a crumbling 1960s tower block no longer fit for purpose, some have heavily opposed the plan for its new home to become Portobello Park.

Others disagree, arguing it is the best site for the must-have development, which they feel outweighs the seaside community’s need for green space.

Like Louise, most of the people who use the park on a regular basis, or live around it, want it to remain as it is.

Pupils make their way to the current school

Pupils make their way to the current school

The “Save Porty Park” posters plastering the windows of homes directly opposite the land, including those in Milton Road and Park Avenue, say it all. As does the ongoing high-profile campaign to fight for the park led by the Portobello Park Action Group, who recently lodged a legal case with the Court of Session to try to block the council’s plans for the site.

With the case due to go to court in December, the group argues the land is common good, bequeathed to the people of the area, and should remain as such.

Other arguments against the site have centred on increased traffic in the area potentially generated by the new school, which would look out on to the busy Milton Road.

The most recent development in the long-running debate has seen the city council try to bring the court case forward, arguing that delaying building work at the site will mean the new school will not open until January 2014, instead of August 2013 – in time for the start of the academic year – as had been hoped.

Residents are fighting to preserve Portobello Park

Residents are fighting to preserve Portobello Park

The worst-case scenario for the council, and supporters of the new build, is that the plans are stalled altogether, sending planners back to the drawing board.

It’s lunchtime on a week day and although the park is far from deserted, it is also far from heaving. In comparison to a similar time of day at the Meadows, or Bruntsfield Links for example, it is relatively quiet, but locals offer assurances that at peak times the park is a well-used asset in the community.

“People use it for picnics in the summer and from about 6.30 in the morning, there are lots of dog walkers about,” explains Louise.

“There are lots of dog walkers in the evening too, as well as people playing football, on week nights as well as the weekends.

“Pretty much all the residents living around here are against the plans. I definitely don’t want the school as we’d lose this ground.

“I think the council will get what it wants in the end though. It usually does, doesn’t it?”

The park is popular with all parts of the community

The park is popular with all parts of the community

Talk of rebuilding Portobello High has been rumbling on for more than a decade, with the council eventually approving its plans for the development on the park in February, after considering 15 possible locations for the new school.

These included replacing the school on its current site or rebuilding on the golf course.

The planning department received 685 representations from people with an interest in the Portobello Park option, with support for the application narrowly overtaking the number of objections at 381 submissions.

The campus-style school is proposed as Edinburgh’s first “golf academy”, backing on to Portobello Golf Course – which will be untouched in the development – as well as featuring two all-weather pitches and a 25-metre swimming pool for use by pupils and the local community.

Earlier this year, a key supporter of the new school, Sean Watters, chairman of Towerbank Primary School parents council, told the Evening News he felt the responses to the planning application suggested that while a number of people “may still oppose the relocation” of Portobello High School, “even more people support it”.

“Building on green space is never ideal, but this is the best of what were limited options,” he said.

“Open space will remain, golfers will still golf, walkers will still enjoy the views of Arthur’s Seat and the Forth, locals will have access to much improved pitches, and 1400 pupils a year will finally enjoy first-rate facilities that will also benefit the wider community. That would be a fair outcome.”

Just what the outcome of the long-running Portobello High School debate will be remains to be seen as the council battles to get December’s court hearing brought closer in a bid to drive forward its plans.

Until then, tensions will likely continue to mount as the Portobello community – and the wider city – holds contrasting views over what is more important, a new school or public space.